Are women just not that into STEM?
The International Labour Organization (ILO) recently held a Philippine forum on women in the field of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The gathering was rife with stories of female empowerment, mostly of Filipino women who now lead tech corporations in the country. But my favorite profile is that of Veronica Panganiban.
Panganiban ran a stall at Taytay Public Market to be able to raise two kids by herself. Last year, a fire burned down her stall and left her jobless. Though clueless about computers at the time, she applied for a STEM scholarship, got her training on digital commerce and was able to rebuild her business through a freelancing stint.
Filipino women at large are not deprived of opportunities in STEM. Although there are specific discrepancies between genders and among geographical regions, STEM education and careers are, as a whole, available to Filipino women as they are to men. Yet data from the Commission on Higher Education show that only a dismal 2.6 percent of information technology (IT) enrollees in academic year 2016-2017 were girls. Technical Education and Skills Development Authority numbers echo this, showing that only 36 percent of its information and communication technology trainees in 2017 were women.
Those statistics show not a lack of aptitude or a scarcity of opportunity, but a shortage of interest in math and sciences among Filipino women. It seems that women are choosing STEM less than men do.
Interestingly, this is also observed in more progressive countries, particularly ones with more gender equity. In fact, a study in psychological science found a “gender-equality paradox”: Countries with lower gender equality actually have more women in STEM. Researchers posited that this is because in liberal nations where women are free to choose, they choose other fields over sciences and mathematics.
This paradox is certainly worth exploring, but for now, we can focus on why women in the Philippine context seem to be less inclined to choose STEM.
The ILO forum offered some clues. In it, tech leaders discussed a number of challenges that may hinder Filipino women from finding interest in STEM. It could be that women lack awareness of the modern and more suitable career paths in the field, considering that, traditionally, STEM was hierarchical and male-dominated. In relation to this, women may not find enough role models in the field; it was only in recent years that Filipino female programmers, animators, data scientists and IT managers rose through the ranks and gained relative prominence.
Awareness and proper mentoring are crucial in overcoming these challenges, especially because STEM is widely perceived as a difficult field. It is not uncommon for students to lose interest in math and sciences as soon as they encounter the multiplication table or Newton’s laws. Here, students could benefit from educators who can show them the stimulating and lucrative applications of these subjects in the real world, and mentor them past their learning roadblocks.
And female learners, especially, could use more demonstration on how they themselves can harness STEM. It is not just for the Mark Zuckerbergs and the Bill Gateses and the archetypical male engineers of the world. It is also for the 30-something mother hoping to succeed in online marketing, or for the 13-year-old girl who has an eye for building design.
It is vital to emphasize this everywhere, but particularly in rural communities where STEM appreciation is lower and traditional gender roles still rigidly persist.
What would all these be for? Why is it so important for girls and women to see the engaging facets of STEM?
Because it would be a profoundly sorry waste if a woman signs off on this field before seeing a glimpse of her own potential in it. Because women need STEM skills to adapt to shifting career landscapes—they are 140 percent more likely than men to lose their jobs due to automation, says the ILO. And because, as Veronica Panganiban found, women can use STEM to improve their quality of life. They just need to discover for themselves their possible place in it.
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